| Willow Lake 8/16-8/17/2013
I am thrilled to report that on the third attempt we have finally reached the summits of Challengers and Kit Carson Peaks. The previous attempts (in a pvs May, July) we were forced back from mid-way up the N face due to weather. Both of those attempts had been single day pushes from the trailhead, and of the various Colorado 14er’s I have been able to visit so far, I would most strongly recommend camping to improve chances of success.
The hike in to Willow Lake is lengthy but very manageable with a moderate grade. 38 switchbacks from the trailhead to the stream below the rock wall. Yes I actually counted them this time.
Upon reaching the area immediately below the lake, the first impression this time was of a campground in Yosemite. Tents everywhere. Besides the now infamous CG group, there were somewhere between 5-10 very small groups searching out available campsites. A few backpackers that were heading down as we were heading up had given us notice of the “group of 50”, which was surprising, since they had not registered at the trailhead (the largest registered group was 6). We found a campsite they had recommended immediately to the left of the trail.
As we settled into the campsite, I glimpsed something black moving furtive behind a tree immediately uphill. My heart rate spiked as I started thinking it may be a black bear. But then a young girl in a black jacket emerged and went on back to the CG site. Exploring the immediate vicinity quickly exposed what she had been doing, as a rock had been dislodged and grown a tail of toilet paper.
Camping was otherwise quite nice that night. Our group had a small campfire to raise the morale, and during the night were visited by a large animal, presumably an elk, judging by the footsteps and deep airy snorts.
We had an early start the next morning, relatively uneventful as we passed our previous highpoint and continued up the north face of Challengers to the saddle. The girls of our group were content with their highpoint on the ridge above. Robert DeNiro, Elton John, and myself (names complements of Kay’s in Buena Vista) continued onward to the summits of both Challengers and Kit Carson.
Kit Carson Avenue is an enjoyable walk without snow. After the Avenue, we ascended the far gully (I’ll call it the third), as recommended on this site. It was far less hairy than the top 25% of Challenger’s N face. Descending we came down two gullies forward of the one we ascended, on advice of others present, and found it steeper but more solid and very manageable, and were back to the Avenue before we knew it.
The descent from Challenger’s was the most nerve-wracking part of the day, as the steepness combined with loose dirt and rock made you test every step and handhold. I had the last of the CG groups descending behind me, which was very uncomfortable, as they sprayed me with a lot of smaller rock on the slabs right above the rib (trailfinding is a little vague in this spot). After that, I made my best to stay down and off to the side of them. I would definitely not recommend descending the gully midway down, but use the trail on the small ridge just southward. We did witness a near (close enough) accident on the lower steep section, as a member of the CG group dislodged a basketball sized boulder that tumbled 200-300 yards before stopping about 30 feet short of a group below us (again I was tremendously glad to be off to the side). It was a tremendous relief to finish the steeps, and then it was back to camp to rest for an hour before packing out, which again is just a nice walk in the woods, especially as those 38 switchbacks counted down…
Now… I have only had a cursory glance at the forums over the past few days, but having had some time to reflect, I want to add my two cents on the CG issue.
Firstoff, I commend Mason for his desire to share his passion for Colorado mountaineering with others. Only by sharing these experiences can we help people appreciate and hopefully protect these natural resources. Afterall, I brought my group for the same reasons. However, contrary to what it may seem, these are very fragile environments (including the other human beings out there hiking), and that group size (40 by their admission, 50 by other estimates) is outrageously too large. The impacts on the site have been well discussed, but the fact that we didn’t have any serious injuries seems against the odds. As a graduate of both Outward Bound and NOLS programs, I can’t ever imagine anyone short of the Army taking so many people in one site.
It was wise for them to break into smaller groups for the summit day (still more than 10 ppl per grp), but even better would have been for these groups to be on different mountains altogether, which would have been more appropriate also for matching skill levels. We can send you a picture that has 13 of their group descending Kit Carsons as we were summiting. I was just glad they hadn’t started their descent a few minutes earlier.
Secondly, not registering at the trailhead risked putting other people in quite a bind. That is just inconsiderate. This seems particularly egregious considering August is a busy month, and that access and permit issues are already being discussed.
As for bathroom issues, our group had 3 run ins with their group on this issue. First the abovementioned “black bear” moment, secondly, two girls from one of the summit groups urinating near the stream above the falls where we were getting our drinking water, and thirdly the one who had the unabashed troll moment up on the North face. Anyone can have a troll moment, but do your very best to keep it away from hiking areas. Sorry, no poo pics, that’s not my style.
On a side note, who taught anyone to yell “headache” when causing rockfall? I’m sorry, but a basketball sized boulder is not a friggin’ headache, it is a widowmaker.
Please understand that as a commercial outfit (fitness camp), you are going to be held to the highest standards for your backcountry ethics. LNT really needs to be more of an emphasis than a “conquistador” attitude. After all, climbing 14ers really is not about fitness, but prudent decision making. It would be great to see your group return in smaller and more reasonable numbers, and spend at least some of that time coordinating with CFI to accomplish any needed projects, especially with all of that spirit and muscle.
Happy to discuss it further if needed,